Episode #31: “The Sales Skills That Can't Be Taught,” with Dan Ross

Hosts: Tim Clarke & Sara Varni
As SVP, Commercial Sales, at Salesforce, Dan Ross manages sales managers. He hires strong leaders by focussing on the sales skills that can't be taught — ranging from curiosity to emotional awareness. Sales people with those skills can think like your customers, walk in their shoes, and partner with them to close more deals. Listen in as Dan reveals how to identify who has outstanding EQ (emotional quotient), not just IQ.

The fact that the technology is changing as quickly as it is means that it's very difficult to find an interview candidate who has all the proven experience of what we're looking to accomplish, even in that given year.”

Dan Ross | SVP, Commercial Sales, Salesforce

Episode Transcript

Tim Clarke: Thank you for joining the Quotable Podcast. Today, we'll be discussing sale skills with Dan Ross, Senior AVP of Commercial Sales at Salesforce. Welcome, Dan. 


Dan Ross: Thanks very much. I appreciate you having me. 


Clarke:We're really excited to have you here. I know you have a couple of great articles on Quotable. Before we get started today, just to remind all of our listeners that the best way to stay on top of all things Quotable is by subscribing to our newsletter at www.quotable.com/subscribe. Dan, for our listeners, who may not be familiar with you and your great background, would you give a little bit of background to yourself?


Ross: Sure thing. I'm quickly approaching my eleventh anniversary with Salesforce. I started back in early 2006. In the 11 years, I've always worked with small businesses. The first three years were in account executive roles, and then almost three years helping bridge our process between marketing and sales as a sales dev leader. Most recently, in the last five years, I've been working in the small business sector in frontline, second-line, and third-line leadership. 


Clarke: Perfect. Well, I'm Tim Clarke, Senior Director of Product Marketing at Salesforce. I'm joined today by my co-host, Sara Varni, SVP of Marketing at Salesforce. Welcome, Sara. 


Sara Varni: Thanks. Thanks, Tim. Thanks, Dan. I'm really excited to jump into your topic. I know it's been one of our most popular articles on Quotables, so this should be a great session. 


Clarke: Let's dive straight in. Dan, I know we've had many guest on the Quotable Podcast. You've been talking about the changing trends in buying and in selling. You've just referenced that you're up to nearly 11 years at Salesforce. What are some of the general trends that you've really seen change in the industry over the last few years?


Ross: One is just adoption. Eleven years ago, we were having daily conversations trying to help validate that the cloud — it wasn't even called cloud computing back then; it was "software on demand" — that getting off of the old school, on premises infrastructure was the way to go, and that it could be trusted. 


I think that's very well proven over the years, but it comes with additional complexity. What's available in a software stack now for the typical salesperson is just exponentially more broad. It's been interesting to see the evolution. 


Varni: Absolutely. How has that changed how you work with your reps? Obviously, you're a sales manager. How has that changed the way you approach enablement, and training, and hiring? I know that that's been a big focus of some of the work and articles that you've promoted on Quotable. 


Ross: "Change" is definitely the word that is driving a lot of our hiring and enablement strategies. The fact that the technology is changing as quickly as it is means that it's very difficult to find an interview candidate who has all the proven experience of what we're looking to accomplish even in that given year. 


When it's changing that fast, you have to get pretty good at understanding what you're looking for in a successful candidate, and how to differentiate between their proven experience versus hiring for their potential. 


Clarke: Dan, for some of our listeners, perhaps they are individual contributors moving into sales management and hiring their first employees, or perhaps already tenured sales managers. What are some of the things that they should really be looking for in candidates during an interview?


Ross: I'm a big believer that regardless of what side of the interview table you'll be sitting on, either as a candidate who is applying for a role, or a hiring leader who is trying to identify their next new hire, I think it's really important to have a clear awareness of the skills that can and cannot be taught. 

I think when you're looking at things that you do not know how to teach, you want to make sure that that candidate has them when they walk in the door. If that's the case, you're looking for clear examples and proof that they've demonstrated those skills in the past. Whereas if it's something that you know how to teach, it's not nearly as much of a gamble to hire someone who hasn't perhaps shown that skill in the past, because you know how to teach it, and you can have trust in the candidate to learn it over time. 


Varni: Digging in, what are some of those traits? What are those skills that really can't be taught, that if you can't get the sense that that person has that in an interview, it's kind of a show-stopper and you're going to move on to the next candidate?


Ross: It's funny. Since we put out those blog articles, I get frequent messages through LinkedIn and Twitter with people showing examples that they were able to teach some of those skills. So just a quick disclaimer that my theory is not that these things cannot be taught; it's that I do not have a track record of being able to teach them. 

The things that I'm looking for in an interview candidate that I do not know how to teach are things like curiosity, integrity, drive, problem solving, resiliency, self-awareness, and emotional awareness. Those are the seven that are at the top of my list when I'm hiring a new account executive on my team. 


Clarke: And they are skills that you believe cannot be taught from your experience. So, how are you assessing that? Is it the questioning techniques that you use during interviews? Is it looking through their background? Any tips there that you would give to our listeners?


Ross:It's a bit of a mix between questions that we like to ask in the interview, but also observations that we try to make throughout the interview process. The first one I mentioned was curiosity. To me, that's one that you want to assess overtime. I look for things like what questions the interview candidate is asking. Do they layer their questions? Are they intelligent questions? Are they thought provoking?

I like to ask, “Why do you ask that question?” And I want to know that they have a good thought-out answer. I guess the wrong answer there, is someone has told them, "You should have questions prepared." So, are they asking questions because they were told to, or are they asking questions because they have a genuine curiosity and are always looking to hear more?


Varni: Great. Let's switch gears a little bit, and let's talk about those skills that you actually think can be taught. Give us an example of a trait or a candidate where you said, "All right. They're strong on certain suits, but they're maybe not as proficient in this other area. But I think that I can get them over the line with some coaching or some management." 


Ross: I think the most obvious example is product knowledge. I made the mistake when I first moved into hiring roles, where we were trying to look for this perfect candidate who is taking all the risk out of the decision because they've got such a proven track record in everything, every category, that we're looking for. We used to do this case study, this role-play, in the interview as part of the interview process.

We would give them the case study and have them sell to a fictional company to see how they understood our value proposition. Could they quickly learn how to sell our product? In the end, we abandoned that approach because we weren't letting these candidates put their best foot forward. We felt like we were missing out on some great talent. When you're trying to hire as fast as we were, you need to be able to assess more quickly and not create this candidate experience where it was too time consuming. 


What was happening was we started to switch and have them just sell their own product, not ours. I know how to teach our product, but what I was learning from them is that they had the drive and the resiliency to try and pick that up quickly in their interview process. It actually became a better indicator of their future success to hear how they sold their current product versus the sales role that they were applying for. 


Clarke: I know product knowledge is one of those seven skills you listed of what can be taught, along with pipe generation, time management, business acumen, sales acumen, big deals, and forecasting. I'm particularly interested, Dan, on how much teaching do you think needs to be done by yourself, by your first-line managers, and sales enablement, versus self-teaching from the individual contributor as well. I know it's quite a hard balance between generating pipeline, closing deals, as well as trying to educate yourself and teach yourself. 


Ross: That's why curiosity and self-awareness are two of the skills that we look for that I have a really hard time teaching. But if they have those two, curiosity and self-awareness, I find they are far more proactive and faster. Their curiosity drives their own self-learning. Every product that comes out, every new sales strategy, every new trend in our customer market, they hear that, and they are hungry to learn more. Their curiosity drives them to learn faster than they would otherwise. 

And then the self-awareness helps them know what their strengths are, as well as what are the areas that they want to improve on. I find that when they're really self-aware, they get more out of their mentors, their leaders, and any coach, because they skip the triage and go to the prescription. They go to their enablement or a mentor, and they're able to say specifically where they need help. 

You're right. It absolutely is a balance between the self-learning, but those skills of curiosity and self-awareness can really accelerate that. 


Varni: EQ is a big topic right now in general. It's obviously something that is on your "can't be taught" list. It's hard to get that perfect balance of IQ and EQ. Do you have any recommendations for a frontline sales manager around how they can instill more self-awareness in an employee who looks in the mirror and sees something different than reality?


Ross: For me, the easiest thing has just been relentless pursuit of feedback, feedback from all directions. As a sales leader, the higher up you go in your career, the less people want to give you constructive criticism. If you don't have a strong EQ and self-awareness, it's really hard to triangulate and see some of the message or the feedback that people might not want to tell you, making it hard to identify gaps, or know the areas that you need to improve or change your message. 

Whether it's a formal process, skip-level reviews, anonymous surveys, to getting help from a third party, perhaps an HR employee success department, and sometimes just tactical, knowing who on your team really has the ear of the rest of the team, and asking for their help to just solicit some feedback and come back with the themes. 


Clarke: I think teamwork is a key thing. I remember when I joined Salesforce. I was in EBU sales in the U.K. There was something I really recognized as a key difference from some of the other sales organizations that I've worked with. It's actually something I wish I had done earlier in my career. 

What are your thoughts here in terms of avoiding the sales rep going out, and just doing their own thing, and thinking that they've got it? Again, I know one of the skills that you can teach is big deals, and they can sometimes be able to risk, obviously, with those, particularly if you're coming to quarter-end of year-end. Any tips you would have in terms of really fostering that culture of teamwork and team selling?


Ross: It's like there's this constant balance of the art and the science of sales. When you're influencing decisions, there's definitely an emotional connection that's going to help. People are buying based on a certain level of trust that they have in that partnership. 

The last thing you want to do is stifle any of the creativity that your team can come up with, with new ideas or different ways to approach a sales cycle. You don't want to stifle that creativity, but at the same time, you do not want to be left with a process that's all art, no science. The science of the process is what helps us make it repeatable, and scalable, and predictable. Every sales leader and CFO certainly wants the predictability. 

I think it's just having that awareness to know that both approaches, the art and the science, are very valuable and important to maintain, and having very fluid and frequent conversations with the team. The communication strategy is important. 

I think where sales leaders get tripped up with that balance is they talk too much about what needs to happen, and not enough around why and how. 


Varni: Dan, you're a manager of managers. I think a lot of managers have come from the sales ranks. Sometimes that works out great, and sometimes it doesn't work out so hot. What's your advice for turning an all-star rep into an all-star manager?


Ross: A lot of that just comes down to … I keep coming back to a lot of the stuff that cannot be taught. The self-awareness is, I think, one of the top indicators of someone who has the ability to round the corner from being an individual contributor to leading a team of eight, ten, etcetera, people in that role. 

I think when an account executive, for example, can be the number one leader in their segment … As far as quota attainment, they can be the number one leader. If they do not have the self-awareness, they probably struggle to articulate what it is that's making them successful quarter after quarter. 

What happens is you have this sales leader who is new to a leadership role. They might have all the greatest ideas. They know how to drive revenue. But if they don't know how to explain it, because they're lacking that self-awareness, they're going to have a team of people who are left shrugging, because they're not sure of what instructions or strategy they're looking to follow. 


Varni: On that note, do you think intelligence will help in that regard? Instead of someone having to articulate why they have a lot of success, and they have to really spell out what they do time and time again, now intelligence can potentially surface those patterns and create that outline for someone who maybe struggles with telling people how they do what they do. 


Ross: Absolutely. If I think of the best sales leaders that I've had a chance to work with, the people with the self-awareness and emotional awareness, it's incredible how much more they can get from their team, because those are typically the people that can take a skill or a strategy that most people would just chalk up to instinct. 

I don't know how many times you hear, "Oh, that person is just a natural sales talent" or "They are just a natural people person. It's so effortless the way that they build rapport and build trust." Those headings can all be correct, but the sales leaders that have the best EQ, they know how to identify those tiny, little steps and actionable habits that make the building of trust more repeatable. 

They know how to coach it. They know how to have that repeated. They know how to take someone who's not good at it, and start to teach them what needs to happen and what needs to change, versus just chalking it up to instinct. 


Clarke: Dan, one of the terms that's used quite regularly is "trusted advisor." This is something we saw in the second annual “State of Sales” research from Salesforce, when we interviewed 3,100 B2B sales professionals. I'm interested in your views on if this is something that you can teach someone, how to be a trusted advisor, or whether you just have that natural ability. 

Again, I'm looking at some of the skills you've listed as can and can't be taught. I think curiosity, product knowledge … How do you get the right balance of truly being curious and leading with insight as opposed to product?


Ross: A lot of us joke that we've yet to meet a customer who calls the 1-800 line and says, "Yes, I'd like to speak to a trusted advisor, please." But I still think it's an accurate heading. I think whether that's the terminology that customers use or not, that is the value add that they're looking for. 

There's so much information available online, and through social networks, and peers, and whatever research they want to do. The information is out there. I think customers more and more are looking for help and how to distill all the information that's available. 

Whether you call it a "trusted advisor" or you could chalk it up to the Challenger methodology from CEB, I think what we are aspiring to do is to be able to truly think like our customers, truly put ourselves in their position. And I think it's a really good indicator that it's going well when you start asking questions and the customer's response is, "Huh, I hadn't thought about that. That's a good question." 

Where we lose deals is where the account executive is not viewed as an important role in the decision process. 


Varni: Or is not maybe presenting themselves as a product expert, right?


Ross: Exactly. 


Varni: We've been talking a lot about people who are already in the sales mix, and how they can propel in their careers that are already established. What about people who are not in the sales world right now? What are your recommendations to them to break into sales? What are the skills that they should hone in on the most to make that jump?


Ross: I think there's so many different types of sales, different types of products, and industries that we could all be selling in. Some are more relationship based; some are transactional. But regardless of whatever type of sale you're getting into, especially if they're looking to make an industry shift or jump into new responsibilities, it's really important for them to do their homework first, understand what the key skills are that would make someone successful in that role, and have a clear sense of what they're bringing to that role. If it's not experienced, what is it?

I think if they're articulating, "Here's some of the intangibles that I bring to the table," and they're able to not just suggest it but prove it — you know, personal stories, or references, or maybe previous customers that they've worked with, whatever the proof is — if they're focusing on the intangibles, that certainly takes a big chunk out of the risk of the hiring decision. 


Clarke: Let's say that these sales reps have just got the job, and they've been given their new territory, and one of the skills you've got for "can be taught": pipe generation. Any tips here for getting the right balance of time spent during that discovery versus actually connecting with that customer? 

I know there's a lot of research out there talking about so many administrative tasks that are completed by the sales person — we all know how much data is available — and also the importance of having a relevant and contextual conversation. Again, from your experience, any tips you would give to sales professionals around prospecting and discovery?


Ross:I think the first tip is to practice early and often. Pipe generation, it's hard. It's not the fun part of the job. But I think you want to make sure that you've identified with the type of leader who's going to let you practice and not get it right a few times. 

We used to do a regular sales training a couple of times a year, and I love that the instructor always ended the day — you know, a full day in a conference room — practicing these new techniques. He would always end the session saying, "When you lose three deals by practicing this new strategy, let me know. I'll buy you a coffee and say thanks." I love when people are empowered to try something new, knowing that it's not going to work the first time, but that we have such trust in that strategy or that methodology that we're willing to have the patience to see the progress pay off. 

And I really like that you brought up time management. I think one of the most commonly skipped steps in good time management strategy is taking time for self-reflection. Sometimes we get so caught up in work ethic and a sense of urgency that we forget to take time and reflect back on what worked, and what did not work, and try and polish some of that self-awareness that we talked about earlier. 


Varni: From a [unintelligible] standpoint, are there certain apps that you recommend to your team? Are there things that you use on a daily basis that help you drive more activity?


Ross: It comes down to very basic tactics, that when you stick to them with conviction, they just pay off. As simple as have the team put it on their calendar. Walk their manager through, "Here are the time slots that I am specifically going to be using for generating more pipeline. Here are the steps that when I book that time, I'm shutting down my inbox. I'm turning off my phone. I'm not multitasking. It is purely on pipe generation." I think it takes that level of focus. 

I'm not mentioning anything creative here, but it's a different level of focus and commitment. And those are the people that learn it fastest; those are the people that see the fastest results. 


Clarke: Dan, we're nearly up on time here. I'm very interested in: If you could go back to the beginning of your own sales career, what advice would you give to yourself based on everything you've now learned?


Ross: Advice if I could go back? I think some of the stuff that we were just talking about. I think I would have forced myself to get used to being more vulnerable internally. Prior to Salesforce, I had not worked in an environment that was so open to coaching and so determined with the development of its people. I know that we're not alone in that culture, in that environment, but it was less common 10-15 years ago. 

So if I could go back, I think I would have been more vulnerable to be more proactive in knowing where I wanted help. I think that would have accelerated some of the learning in my earlier years here. 


Clarke: Perfect. Dan, any closing thoughts for our listeners, for the sales professionals, sales managers, as they look to the year ahead?


Ross: I think the word "change" is certainly not slowing down. As far as my personal development and time management, I'm definitely finding more conviction in, like I said, sticking to the basics, putting it on the calendar, and making more time for — you know, whether it's something simple like Quotable articles, or I'm trying to stick to reading one new book per month. It's not a huge commitment, especially with the amount of time we spend on flights, but just using that time management to not overlook the personal development.


Clarke: Perfect. Thanks, Sara, for co-hosting today. 


Varni: Thank you. And thank you, Dan, so much for all of your insights. 


Ross: It was fun. Thanks very much. 


Clarke: For all of our listeners, make sure you check out Dan's articles on Quotable and also his presentation at the Dreamforce Sales Summit on the Quotable YouTube channel. So thanks to all of our listeners. Thank you, Dan. And please keep up to date — we have so many more great sales insights — by subscribing at www.quotable.com/subscribe. If you found this episode valuable to you, please give us a 5-star rating, and don't forget to share it with your peers, your prospects, and your customers. Thank you. 

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Learn from the best. Sell like the best.